fall off the wagon

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A mule-drawn water wagon for street cleaning in St. Louis, Missouri, USA, c. 1900–1910. The term fall off the wagon is a reference to such wagons.


Originally fall off the water wagon or fall off the water cart, referring to carts used to hose down dusty roads:[1][2][3] see the 1901 quotation below. The suggestion is that a person who is “on the wagon” is drinking water rather than alcoholic beverages. The term may have been used by the early 20th-century temperance movement in the United States; for instance, William Hamilton Anderson (1874 – c. 1959), the superintendent of the New York Anti-Saloon League, is said to have made the following remark about Prohibition: “Be a good sport about it. No more falling off the water wagon. Uncle Sam will help you keep your pledge.”


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fall off the wagon (third-person singular simple present falls off the wagon, present participle falling off the wagon, simple past fell off the wagon, past participle fallen off the wagon)

  1. (idiomatic) To cease or fail at a regimen of self-improvement or reform; to lapse back into an old habit or addiction.
    Though he fell off the wagon several times, he eventually succeeded in quitting.
    • 2014 August 11, w:Dave Itzkoff, "Robin Williams, Oscar-Winning Comedian, Dies at 63 in Suspected Suicide," New York Times
      In 2006, he checked himself into the Hazelden center in Springbrook, Ore., to be treated for an addiction to alcohol, having fallen off the wagon after some 20 years of sobriety.
    • 2018 Hyden, Steven (2018-09-08) , “His Sh*t’s F***ed Up: The Complicated Legacy of Warren Zevon”, in The Ringer[2], retrieved 2018-09-08
      “After nearly 17 years of sobriety, Zevon fell off the wagon hard when he was diagnosed.”


Related terms[edit]



  1. ^ On the wagon” in Michael Quinion, World Wide Words[1], created 18 July 1998, last updated 27 January 2006.
  2. ^ wagon” in Douglas Harper, Online Etymology Dictionary, 2001–2021, retrieved 2019-10-08: “Phrase on the wagon "abstaining from alcohol" is attested by 1904, originally on the water cart.”
  3. ^ Robert Hendrickson (1997) The Facts on File Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins, rev. and exp. edition, New York, N.Y.: Facts On File, →ISBN.